Putin is trapped and desperate. Will his friends in the west rescue him? | Simon Tisdall

Russia’s leader and his sympathisers could use old conflicts to distract attention from Ukraine and weaken European unity

‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” So wrote American author Henry David Thoreau in 1854. It’s a fate that is rapidly overtaking Vladimir Putin as he struggles to escape the disastrous trap he set for himself in Ukraine.

Russia’s president keeps understandably schtum about his “special military operation”. But indefinite stalemate is not what he expected. He didn’t expect car bombs in Moscow and humiliating attacks on fortress Crimea, either.

Least of all did Putin anticipate 80,000 Russian soldiers dead or wounded. Dying with them is his Peter the Great pipe dream of a “greater Russia”. Extinct already is his reputation as anything other than a killer and a crook.

An endless military quagmire is not a scenario Putin can afford as slow-burn western sanctions corrode his economy and his military’s manpower and materiel are steadily depleted. So what are his options?

He could declare a specious victory, claim the Nato “threat” is neutralised and propose a settlement recognising Russia’s annexation of occupied areas. But he surely knows Kyiv will never willingly accept such terms. He could gamble on a huge battlefield escalation, for example, using Belarus to open a second front north of Kyiv – the region he failed to overrun in February. But it’s uncertain his generals have the capability or the stomach.

He certainly dare not retreat. So as pressure on him grows to produce a breakthrough, Putin may well decide his best option is to raise the cost of the war to Ukraine’s backers – and undermine Kyiv’s resistance that way.

In fact, he has already begun. It’s telling that British, French and German leaders all proclaimed long-term support for Ukraine last week. They know Putin is betting they will buckle.

The context is rising anxiety over Europe’s energy and cost of living crises, largely caused by the invasion and Kremlin cuts to gas supplies. The winter fallout from this coldest of cold wars could prove paralysing.

Yet Putin may just be getting started. He has many means by which to undermine western unity and staying power. Europe is littered with easily exploited potential flashpoints and geopolitical faultlines bequeathed from Soviet times. Likewise, Russia has surprising numbers of allies and sympathisers scattered across a politically fractured European landscape.

So will Putin’s friends in the west help rescue the beast from the east? Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko is already in Putin’s pocket. Moscow ensured the dictator survived after his theft of the 2020 presidential election provoked nationwide protests. Lukashenko will do as he’s told.

Inside the EU, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, is seen as Putin’s Trojan horse. Like many on Europe’s far right, Orbán admires his intolerant nationalist ideology and shares his racist, homophobic outlook. He has repeatedly obstructed EU sanctions. Last month he cut a unilateral gas deal with the Kremlin. Orbán plainly cannot be trusted.

The collapse in June of Bulgaria’s reformist government and subsequent talk of repairing relations with Moscow fuels concern that Putin is gaining leverage to divide the EU.

Italy has plenty of Putin fans, too. Leaders of two far-right parties that are expected to join a ruling coalition after next month’s elections have enjoyed close ties with Moscow over the years. Matteo Salvini’s League formed an alliance with Putin’s United Russia in 2017. Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia is a personal friend. Italy’s ousted prime minister Mario Draghi took a tough line on Ukraine. That may change.

Other European far-right (and far-left) insurgent and populist parties identify to varying degrees with Putinist ideology and conservative social values. They echo his hostility to the EU. A definitive European Council on Foreign Relations study in 2016 listed Germany’s Alternative for Germany, France’s Front National (now National Rally), Austria’s Freedom party and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang as “pro-Russian”. Ukip made the cut, too.

“The parties … help legitimise the Kremlin’s policies and amplify Russian disinformation. At times they can shift Europe’s domestic debates in Russia’s favour,” the study said. In Putinworld, such channels of influence are potent weapons.

Putin can also rely on mainstream non-EU politicians such as Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s president, for a sympathetic hearing. Vučić has been dubbed “little Putin” by opponents. Serbia has profound historical, Slavic and religious ties to Russia, plus a shared distrust of Nato. The alliance’s 1999 bombing of Belgrade is not forgotten.

The EU and UK fear the volatile western Balkans are a critical pressure point Putin could use to stir up old conflicts and distract attention from Ukraine.

Kosovo, where ethnic Serb agitation is building again, is a case in point. Vučić last week threatened international peacekeepers with intervention. “We will save our people from persecution and pogroms if Nato doesn’t want to do it,” he said. Bosnian Serb leaders tied to Moscow also threaten new ruptures in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia has echoed Serbia’s rejection of “hysterical” western sanctions. In March, pro-Putin Bosnian Serb “Night Wolves” bikers cheered the invasion.

Partitioned Moldova and Georgia, with divided populations and Russian troops on their soil, are also potential flashpoints. Another is Kaliningrad, where Putin deployed hypersonic missiles this month to intimidate the Nato neighbours. Estonia, in particular, with its ethnic Russian minority, appears a target.

Putin’s efforts to spread fear and instability, disruption and economic pain – making countries think twice about opposing Russia – extend beyond Europe. His vetoes have left the UN security council frozen in time. Now he and China’s Xi Jinping look set to turn November’s important post-pandemic G20 summit in Bali into a crude west-versus-the-rest showdown over Ukraine. No matter that Russia’s whole argument is based on a lie.

Putin’s reckless brinkmanship at Ukraine’s occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant suggests he’ll risk almost anything to win. Quietly desperate, he grows more dangerous by the day.

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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